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"Ted used to dote on me," said Judy. "We had a great sex life. But now, after many years of marriage, we never make love anymore or do the fun stuff we used to enjoy together, like being a 'book club of two' or going to movies. All we do is fight about how he flirts with young women every chance he gets, even right in front of me.
"The flirting makes me furious, but I can't say I blame him. Whenever I look in the mirror, I think to myself, Who is that woman? I feel as young as ever, but I have so many wrinkles! Then there's my body. In high school I had a sexy figure and was the homecoming queen. But I never lost the weight I'd put on after my two sons were born -- and they're grown-ups now. I've gained even more weight lately. And I don't want to tell you what gravity has done to my D-cup breasts.
"I told Ted that I want to get a facelift and other cosmetic surgery, but he thinks it's an unnecessary expense. He says he doesn't care that I don't look the same as I did when we met. He also thinks I'm blowing his interest in other women way out of proportion -- that it's all in my head. Come on! You should have seen him holding court with the young women at a pool party recently. I won't say he actually starts anything, but he definitely doesn't discourage what goes on. And, by the way, he's still very attractive, with a full head of hair, six-pack abs, and great skin.
"Not only has Ted kept his looks, but he's a successful businessman, which is a guaranteed turn-on for women. He owns a chain of auto-body shops and women customers fawn all over him. He eats it up. I'd love to turn the tables to show him how it feels, but I'm just a part-time dental hygienist, which is not exactly glamorous. Young guys are more inclined to offer to help me cross the street than to flirt with me. Okay, I'm exaggerating, but not much.
"Whenever I challenge Ted about his flirting, he says he would never break up the family. To me, that says he's only sticking with me out of obligation. The other night we had a horrible fight. We were yelling at each other, and I was sobbing hysterically. Ted was so mad that he stormed out of the house. I don't know where he went or when he came back. I guess he slept on the couch.
"The only reason Ted agreed to see a counselor is that he hates how jealous I've become. I'll give him that one. I don't like who I am now any more than he does. In my opinion, plastic surgery would fix the situation. But he says I'm just being shallow, that I need to accept the way I'm aging and stop accusing him of straying when it's all just innocent. He also says our lack of a love life is normal at this point. Maybe so, but I miss the way we used to cuddle in bed. Now I just stay over on my side so he won't have to touch me. We can't go on like this. Maybe we'd both be better off if we just called it quits."
"I was first attracted to Judy because she was a knockout," said Ted. "Hey, I was a 21-year-old guy with hormones! She could have been a Playboy centerfold. I loved watching other guys practically walk into lampposts staring at her.
"The relationship wasn't just superficial, though. Judy turned out to be incredibly sweet and giving, and we liked all the same books, movies, songs, food and, well, everything. When I got down on one knee on Valentine's Day to ask her to marry me, I quoted Elvis Presley's song 'Can't Help Falling in Love.' A year later that was our song for the first dance at our wedding reception.
"After that everything went the way we planned: My business took off, our two boys were born healthy, and Judy was able to stay home with them until they started kindergarten. The only glitch was that Judy was upset because she'd gained weight with her pregnancies. Afterward she was so busy with our sons that she had no time for the gym and couldn't drop the pounds. I kept telling her to get a sitter so she could go work out, but she thought I was saying I didn't like the way she looked.
"The situation has gotten worse lately. Her skin has aged a lot in the last few years and she gained even more weight. But I never, ever criticized her. She's the one who has been hard on herself. And I know it hasn't helped that I still look pretty young. I'm just lucky.
"I guess that's why women gravitate to me. It drives Judy nuts when we're at a party, but it's just meaningless fun. I'd never have an affair and I'd never leave Judy. I'm a family man through and through. But when I said that to her, she started crying and yelling that I insulted her by implying I'm true to her only out of duty. We ended up having the fight to end all fights -- and she wouldn't let go of it. She said we had to see a counselor.
"She also keeps saying she wants to get plastic surgery. That would cost a fortune, and I think it would just be a surface fix. Why can't she accept the way she is now and believe me when I say I still love her? That's what we need to fix, not her wrinkles."
"Judy and Ted were fighting like children," said the counselor. "Neither had ever truly grown up emotionally. Because Judy had low self-esteem, she was always preoccupied with her looks. As for Ted, he was still handsome enough that he could continue to think of himself as the hot guy he'd been in his youth.
"On top of that, they were dealing with a fairly common marital problem: One partner's insecurity was driving a wedge in the relationship. What made it worse is that being a charmer is just part of Ted's DNA. Still, he needed to acknowledge how much this behavior hurt his wife and be willing to curb those tendencies for her sake. In a private session with Ted I gently explained that although his bantering and wisecracking with other women was just his way of having a little fun, it was a slap in the face to Judy. He gave me a hangdog look and said, 'It just comes naturally to me.' But finally he said, 'I really don't want to make Judy upset. How can I change?' I told him that every time he found himself surrounded by women at a social gathering, he should make sure Judy was at his side and the center of his attention. He should make frequent eye contact with her so it's clear to everyone that his wife is number one with him. He agreed to try that. At our next private session, he reported that he had done it and that Judy had apparently felt special and included. At a joint session she told me the same thing.
"Even more important, I taught Judy and Ted a tried-and-true communication technique. Set a kitchen timer so that each person has one minute to speak without interruption. Then you must be silent for another full minute while both of you reflect on what was said and the other can come up with a civilized reply or a request for clarification. This kind of structure can have an artificial feel to it, but it is a huge improvement over shouting matches.
"As a result of their new communication skills, Judy was able to help Ted understand how inadequate she felt. He had never really heard her before because he always felt she was attacking him, but when he finally got it he was moved to tears.
"Not long after that, Judy once again brought up the subject of cosmetic surgery, but I encouraged her and Ted to reignite their sex life before moving forward with it. I wanted them to establish a sexual relationship that went beyond the trigger of appearances. They said it worked -- that there was more tenderness and it was more satisfying.
"Eventually Judy did decide to have cosmetic surgery, but it was motivated by the simple desire to look better, not by the need to keep Ted's attention. 'I feel so much happier about myself these days,' Judy said.
"Ted likes her new look and Judy is pleased by his reaction. But she says that knowing he'd always loved her just the way she was is now the real turn-on. Ted says he couldn't agree more."
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Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, December/January 2010.